So there is a suggestion that I have heard numerous times of late, on social media and in general – that only white people can be racist.
It popped up in last year’s elections, it pops up often in social media spats, it popped up last month when I watched a disturbing series of online pile-ons upon a white individual for some innocuous statement she made about a café. I’ve seen it utilized to permit some horrid behaviour and I’m often tagged into these scenarios with the expectation that I will confirm someone’s apparent diplomatic immunity from being racist.
I won’t, and it’s probably overdue that we talk about why.
Anti-whiteness is not a commonly held conversation (outside of white nationalism) because if a white person tries to talk about it, it comes across as defensive fragility… and non-white folk, in my observation, either don’t see it as an issue, or they see it as work that is primarily benefitting white people – therefore it either does not help in anti-racism work, or that it does not meet the same priority as supporting non-white communities to deal with their experiences of racism.
I, too, prefer my own energy to be spent on helping my own communities, and prefer good Tangata Tiriti to work with educating their own colleagues in this space about confronting how race and privilege descends down to them, and what to do about that.
But that is precisely why I am taking time out for this issue – because some of the LEADING critical race theorists are very clear about this:
If we are saying that ONLY those who are a) white and b) at the very top of the societal power structure can be racist, this will delay our collective journey to being anti-racist.
It will inhibit our ability to address lateral racism.
It will inhibit our ability to deracialize white minds.
It will inhibit our dismantlement of racial hierarchies.
It will, ultimately, manifest as oppression against brown folk.
And that is why we need to talk about it – because it will, in the end, impact on our own communities anyway.
Critical race theorist Ijeoma Oluo discusses racism as follows:
“there are two dominant forms of racism. 1) Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race and 2) Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power.“
In taking this definition, some people like to suggest that non-white people therefore cannot be racist because they have no power in the system.
Yet that is not true. Non-white people can hold power in this system, and in holding that power, they can also perpetuate harm along racialized lines.
In Ibram X Kendi’s book “How to be an AntiRacist” he uses the example of Barack Obama, who rose to be one of the most powerful national leaders in the world. You cannot say he was powerless. While in that seat, he drove policies that increased racial inequities. He drove policies that cost lives, along racial lines. Obama appointed famously racist white policy makers into his administration where they developed and delivered abominably racist policies. One of them is quoted as saying:
“A given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”Lawrence Summers
There is also the case of Ken Blackwell, who, as a black secretary of state for Ohio, developed policies that deliberately suppressed black voters in order to favour George Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign – and Judge Clarence Thomas who doubled the number of dismissals of cases of racial discrimination within the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Professor of Black Studies Kehinde Andrews speaks at length about Candace Owens and her insidious anti-black rhetoric in support of US conservatism.
Want a more local example? Shane Jones, while in power, sought to establish policies that would directly undermine the inherited rights of Māori to their customary fisheries and protection of their marine estate – insulting their intelligence along the way. Winston Peters thought it funny to quip “two Wongs don’t make a white” in criticizing Asian land ownership in Aotearoa. The Māori Party sought to blame immigrants for the housing crisis during the 2020 electoral campaign in a way that placed refugee communities (already victims of global racism) directly, and unnecessarily, in the crosshairs.
Māori MP Paula Bennett, while in office as Minister for Social Development, drove policies that negatively targeted Māori and Pacific families while ignoring the same issues in pakeha families. She is Māori. She held power within this system. She used that power in a way that drove racial inequity. It’s simply not true to say that only white people can be racist. There are numerous Non-White MPs who have held office in this country – and while in office have driven policies that have perpetuated harm along racialized lines.
Next question is, can people of colour be racist towards white people?
Well, we have already established that non-white people can be racist towards each other – they can do this individually, and they can do this through policies and manipulation of the relative power that they hold. Racism can be delivered down, and it can be delivered across… can it be delivered up?
As Oluo notes, the first definition of racism (that it is any act of prejudice because of ones race) reduces discussions of racism down to a battle for the hearts and minds of individual racists, and misses the point that individual acts of racism are a part of a larger system. In short – if you only ever address it as individual acts, you will never overcome it, because you will fail to address the system that indoctrinates racists in the first place. We must address this at a systemic level.
So within that definition – no, racism cannot be delivered “up”. More often than not, anti-white statements are considered “racial prejudice” which are excusable by virtue of the fact that it lacks the systemic power to make it relevant or problematic.
There is a BUT, however, and here it is:
If you want to define racism through power analysis – you must also consider that racial prejudice against white folk reaffirms racial hierarchies and racist power systems. An anti-racist future is one where there IS NO racial hierarchy – not one where either 1) A racialised minority is at the top of the racial hierarchy or 2) A racialized minority is permitted to hit UP against whoever is at the top of the racial hierarchy.
Kendi puts it best:
“Anti-White racist ideas are usually a reflexive reaction to White racism. Anti-White racism is indeed the hate that hate produced, attractive to the victims of White racism. And yet racist power thrives on anti-White racist ideas—more hatred only makes their power greater. When Black people recoil from White racism and concentrate their hatred on everyday White people… they are not fighting racist power or racist policymakers. In losing focus on racist power, they fail to challenge anti-Black racist policies, which means those policies are more likely to flourish. Going after White people instead of racist power prolongs the policies harming Black life. In the end, anti-White racist ideas, in taking some or all of the focus off racist power, become anti-Black. In the end, hating White people becomes hating Black people.“Prof Ibram X. Kendi
You will notice, dear reader, that Professor Kendi does not at all shy away from the term “Anti-White racism”. He does not specify it as prejudice, he is focused more on the system that takes Black lives and forging ahead to an anti-racist future.
The pathway to this anti-future necessitates frank discussions about privilege, power, and fragility. It requires us to see racism as, in Kendi’s words, “a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas.” So it requires us to deracialize our policies, and the minds that create those policies, through anti-racist action, thought, and education.
The suggestion that Māori are completely powerless, or that people of colour are completely powerless, stems from a racist idea (and in fact can be traced back to racist policies). It is not antiracist.
The suggestion that only White people can be racist, and that white people will only ever be racist within that system, erases all forms of allyship and condemns white minds to never being able to deracialize. It is not antiracist.
The suggestion that Māori can never be racist erases the harm that we can do with the limited access to power that we have in our own lands. It will never enable us to address how we have utilized relative power against each other, against wahine Maori, and against other marginalized groups. IMPORTANTLY – it will never enable us to explore how this behaviour supports a racially hierarchical system that we will never (and should never want to) reach the top of. It will inhibit us from bringing that racially hierarchical system down and growing an antiracist future for our children.
Too often, what’s been apparent in people tagging me into their online racism debates is that it appears to be about their own aversion to see themselves as capable of a racist act – because they, too, see racism as a permanent personal slur, a fixed characteristic (reserved only for whites) rather than an act that is informed by a system of racial hierarchy. They, too, are ironically focussed on themselves as an individual rather than focussing on the system.
I have said racist things, and thought racist thoughts… and it’s my ownership of that, my commitment to change, and my faith that the system can also change that makes me anti-racist.